As with the term “rights,” there is a great deal of confusion about the term “animal rights.” Much of this confusion has been caused not just by the media and the industries that exploit nonhuman animals, but also by activists and animal advocacy groups using the term to loosely describe any actions purported to improve the conditions of animals used by humans. In other words, rather than promoting the moral or legal rights of animals, some so-called “animal rights activists” focus on regulating animal welfare–how animals are treated.
Further confusing the issue, some animal rights activists seek legal rights for only a select category of sentient nonhuman animals (such as great apes), based on characteristics such as higher-order cognitive abilities. The rights theory I put forth here–laid out in far greater detail in Gary L. Francione’s highly recommended Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog?–holds that any sentient being has at least one basic moral right simply by virtue of that being’s sentience: The right not be treated merely as a means to another’s end.
To be sentient is to be conscious or self-aware, capable of perception or feeling. Sentient humans and nonhumans feel sensations of pain, pleasure and so on. When a being is sentient, s/he will naturally have interests. For instance, the capacity for sentient beings to feel pain provides them with a clear interest in not feeling pain.
In recognition of this particular interest, we generally consider it unacceptable to inflict pain on another sentient being unless there is an extraordinarily good reason. Take the example of a boy who harms a nonhuman simply to satisfy his morbid curiosity. He straps an ordinary dog down on a table and cuts her open to have a look inside. As he does this, the dog yelps, howls, and struggles, but the boy keeps cutting, ignoring her cries.
I think it’s safe to assume we all find the boy’s behavior objectionable. Various reasons may be offered for this, from our concern that the boy has psychological problems–and that these problems could lead to him harm other humans some day–to our concern that the dog might belong to another human who has an emotional attachment to her. But these are not the fundamental reasons for our objection. We are upset by the example because we recognize that the boy is causing the dog unnecessary pain.
If the dog was not sentient, then she wouldn’t have an interest in not being caused pain (because non-sentient beings are unable to sense pain), and so there would be no harm done. But, of course, we know that the dog is sentient, and we know that the boy’s actions cause her much pain.
Now, if we were to agree that the pain was for some justifiable reason necessary, we might be distressed by what is being done to the dog, but we would not object to it as a moral matter. For instance, if the boy was attacked by the dog and killed her to protect himself from a similar fate, we might be saddened by her death, but we would say that it was justified in this particular situation. However, it cannot be reasonably held that the boy needs to harm the dog merely to satisfy his curiosity.
This example illustrates how, as long as a being is sentient, we recognize–as a moral matter–that the being has an interest in not being harmed, which cannot be ignored or overridden unless it is truly necessary to do so. This belief is based on no other characteristic than the being’s ability to feel that pain. No other characteristics beyond sentience are necessary to merit moral consideration.
The principle of equal consideration holds that, as a basic moral matter, we ought to treat like cases alike. Viewed in terms of interests, the principle requires that the like interests of various beings must be given equal consideration. As described above, nonhumans and humans are alike in at least one important, morally relevant respect: they are sentient and, as such, they have interests that must be considered. Extending the principle of equal consideration to all sentient beings requires that we give nonhumans’ interests equal weight to humans’ interests. Where our interests are the same, we must weigh them equally.
So how does this work?
Let’s examine a simple case involving humans. Morally, we disapprove of killing other humans without justification (e.g., self defense). This is because we recognize that human beings have an interest in not being killed. We take this interest very seriously, protecting it with a legal right. A person’s interest in not being killed does not derive from skin color, sex, or cognitive abilities. When we give equal weight to the interests of white and black people, people of any sex or intelligence level, we recognize that they all have an equal interest in continued existence, and we accept that we might protect this interest equally.
Species is not the basis for an interest in continued existence, either. Humans do not have an interest in continued existence because they are human, but because they are sentient. As previously discussed, all sentient beings have interests, including a fundamental interest in staying alive.1 According to the principle of equal consideration, to whatever extent we respect a human’s interest in not being killed, then we must also respect a nonhuman’s interest in not being killed. If we accept that a human’s interest in continued existence cannot be outweighed by another human’s interest in pleasure, then we must accept that a nonhuman’s interest in continued existence cannot by outweighed by a human’s interest in pleasure.
There is simply no non-arbitrary difference between humans and other animals that justifies treating their like interests differently.2 Remember, we accord equal consideration where our interests are alike. Because there is no characteristic possessed by sentient nonhumans that justifies giving their like interests less consideration than our own, they ought to be protected equally. This brings us to animal rights.
Recall from my previous AR101 post that rights protect one’s interests against those who would disregard those interests. All sentient beings have interests, both human and nonhuman, and so they all belong in the moral community of rightholders. When we say that nonhuman animals have moral rights, we are basically acknowledging that some of their interests are like ours and that these interests must be given equal consideration to our own. So, if we have a moral right not be killed (even if it might benefit someone to kill us), then our understanding of the principle of equal consideration leads us to the conclusion that nonhuman animals have that moral right as well, as they have the exact same underlying interest.
As discussed previously, we expect that, at some point, legally defined rights will reflect the moral rights that we already accept. Moral and legal rights for animals, then, derive from the notion of equal consideration for their basic interests. Saying that animals have rights is the same as saying that animals are rightholders. It doesn’t necessarily say which rights animals have morally, and which they should be granted legally. Moral rights would, of course, become better understood as we begin to give the interests of nonhuman animals equal consideration. The expectation is that legal rights would follow along the same lines.
While we may not agree on all the specific moral rights possessed by sentient nonhuman animals, but there must be at least one fundamental moral right they hold if any other rights are to make sense: The right not be treated as a thing, as merely the means to another’s end. This must also be granted as a legal right if any other legal animal rights are going to mean anything. Nonhuman beings simply have no legal rights as long as they are regarded as property, i.e., a means to the ends of a person. Remember, property cannot have rights, only persons can.
In my next post, part four of AR101, I will discuss in more detail how property status relates to animal rights, along with its implications.
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1. Remember, if one is not sentient, one simply has no interests to speak of.
2. There are certainly some interests sentient beings do not have in common. For instance, nonhumans do not have a demonstrable interest in voting, bearing arms, and so on, and therefore we are not obligated to consider those interests. After all, you cannot give consideration to an interest if it does not exist.